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Avoiding Future Famines

Avoiding Future Famines

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Strengthening the Ecological Basis of Security through Sustainable Food Systems
Strengthening the Ecological Basis of Security through Sustainable Food Systems

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Published by: Daisy on Jul 04, 2012
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In this century, agricultural systems will need to evolve in
ways that intensify production to ensure nutrition and food
security while sustaining the associated ecosystems on which
this depends (Uphof 2002; McIntyre et al. 2009; NRC
2010; Giovanucci et al. 2012). Coordinated strategies and
appropriate technologies are needed to support this transition.

Te following approaches and management systems have proven
to be efective and can be applied to improve farm production
and/or restore degraded landscapes (Tifen et al. 1994; German
et al. 2012). However, one of the initiatives by itself is a sufcient
response; farmers need to combine various appropriate elements
into better management of their farming systems.

5.2.1 Improve Soil Systems as the Basis for
Production and Ecosystem Health

As noted in Chapter 2, good management of soil systems
provides the foundation for any productive and sustainable
agricultural system. Environmental benefts include better
absorption and retention of rainfall, reduced erosion and
fooding, and carbon sequestration which has advantages for
atmospheric stability.

Strategies for Sustainable Agricultural Production Systems


Along with increasing and better using ‘green water,’ there
needs to be increased efciency in the use of ‘blue water.’
Water control and efciency can be improved by means
such as sprinkler or drip irrigation; laser leveling of felds;
defcit irrigation (Fereres and Soriano 2007; Geerts and Raes
2009); groundwater development, provided that extraction
does not exceed regeneration; rainwater harvesting at feld
to farm to community scales (Box 5.1); and water recycling,
including treated wastewater (Molden et al. 2007). Small-scale
technologies can have substantial cumulative efect if used
across whole landscapes.

5.2.3 Increase Plant Efficiency through Integrated
Nutrient Management and Modified Crop

Conventional agriculture depends heavily on the use of inorganic
fertilizers (Section 2.3.1). Integrated Nutrient Management
(INM) is a way in which “optimal” production can be reached,
building on the foundation that good soil management provides.

INM aims to better utilize nutrient cycles in the soil and
plants and relies more on organic means of fertilization,
supplemented with selective, careful use of inorganic fertilizers
on soils that require them. Te latter are applied to enhance
the productivity of available organic inputs, rather than vice

versa, aiming to continuously improve the structure and
functioning of soil systems (Uphof et al. 2006). A study
conducted in western Kenya shows that applying synthetic
nitrogen fertilizer has negative economic returns unless/until
the levels of organic carbon in the soil have reached at least 3%
(Murage et al. 2000; Marenya and Barrett 2009).

To raise and maintain agricultural productivity, building
up soil organic matter is essential, particularly where soils are
relatively infertile. Green manures can enrich the soil; cover
crops, shade nitrogen-fxing trees and lower soil temperatures

for the beneft of soil organisms while inhibiting weed
growth. Tis approach works best where farmers have access
to substantial amounts of organic material, given competing
demands for straw and other crop residues. Producing biomass
that enriches the soil may contribute more to agricultural
production than direct eforts to raise crop output on defcient

An example of how INM and modifed crop management
can increase yield is the System of Rice Intensifcation (SRI)
which has shown potential to increase yields from existing
rice varieties, both improved and unimproved, without
requiring purchased inputs and with less application of water
(see Box 5.2). Tis is done with enhancement of soil organic

Box 5.1. A ‘5% Solution’ to Water Stress in India

An Indian NGO working with rural communities in upland areas has developed a
low-cost water-harvesting technology called ‘the 5% model’ that is spreading rapidly.
PRADAN encourages farmers to take 5% of their rainfed paddy felds out of production,
digging catchment ponds that can trap and store water which runs over their felds
during monsoon rains. Tis enables farmers to provide supplementary irrigation when
their crops come under water stress for lack of rainfall or soil moisture later in the season.
It also increases percolation that augments water availability downstream. An investment
of Rs. 80,000 (1,775 USD) per hectare can increase up to 7 households’ food security
by 20-30%, and family incomes by 10%-25%, depending on the crop mix (information
provided by PRADAN feld staf).

Credit: PRADAN

Box 5.2: Agroecological Practices Increase Food Security in Nepal and Ethiopia

Te FAO-European Union Food Facility Programme in western Nepal, which works with households among the poorest
and most vulnerable in the country, has introduced SRI through Farmer Field School-managed plots, initially each with
25 farmers from a district. Te technique has produced
yields of 6.0 to 8.4 tonnes per hectare which are 48–153%
higher than farmers now obtain with conventional practices.
Given its lower production costs, SRI crop management
gave rice farmers an 84% higher net return on average. Te
programme has calculated that with the new methods, a
household of fve persons could meet its staple food needs
for one year with just 0.15 hectare (FAO-EU 2011).

In dry Tigray province in northern Ethiopia, an NGO, the
Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD), has pioneered
a similar set of principles called ‘planting with space.’ Finger
millet yields, normally about 2.8 tonnes/hectare, have reached 7.6 tonnes, with as many as 39 panicles (heads) on a single plant.
Yields of tef, the nationally preferred cereal grain, which are typically about 1 tonne/hectare, have increased to 4.8 to 6.0 tonnes
with modifed crop management (Arayu and Edwards 2011).

Planting of single rice seedlings on an SRi plot and harvesting rice in
western Nepal
Credit: FAO-EU (2011)

42Avoiding Future FAmines:

Strengthening the Ecological Basis of Food Security through Sustainable Food Systems

matter, and active soil aeration (PWE 2011; SRI-Rice 2012).
Environmental benefts include reduced demand for water and
less application of agrochemicals. SRI concepts and methods
have been extrapolated to other crops beyond rice, eliciting
similar increases in yield from wheat, sugarcane, fnger millet,
tef, rapeseed, various legumes, and vegetables (Prasad 2008;
ICRISAT/WWF 2009; Araya and Edwards 2011).

Te sustainability of increased yields from these methods are
still being discussed; but so far the higher yields have usually been
sustained over time and even improved, provided that organic
matter is returned to the soil to maintain its biodiversity. Tese
methods are not limited to ‘organic’ production since inorganic

fertilizers can be used along with the other management
methods if cost or availability considerations limit the ability of
a farmer to apply organic matter to the feld.

5.2.4. Control Pests and Diseases through Biological
Control and Ecosystem Management

Section 2.2.2 explains that natural control of crop diseases
and pests is carried out by organisms living inside and outside
the boundaries of cropland. It was also pointed out that
pesticides applied to crops sometimes spread to the vicinity
of these organisms and destroy them. One important way
of protecting these helpful organisms is through “Integrated
Pest Management” (IPM), a pest management system that
enables farmers to make targeted and focused decisions about
pesticide application (European Commission 2009; USEPA
2011). IPM relies not only on biological control methods and
ecosystem management, but also on better monitoring and
better understanding of pests to reduce damage from pests/
diseases and disrupt their spread. Pest control strategies can
then be developed using a combination of observation, cultural
practices, mechanical and biological control, and then targeted
pesticide application if needed. As an example, in 2008 potato
farmers in the State of Maine, USA saved USD 17 million
through reduced crop loss and reduction in pesticide usage by
better anticipating the conditions under which potato blight

could become a threat and by farm monitoring of fungal

In its present form, IPM is being mainstreamed into
sustainable farming standards, and is practiced widely in
both small- and large-scale farming systems throughout the
world, evolving further to embrace biological processes more
fully. Plants’ health depends on their interaction with pests
and pathogens, cohorts of other organisms, and the physical
and chemical environments in which they grow. Emerging
knowledge of ecological dynamics enables agriculture to move
beyond one-plant/one-pest (or pathogen) control strategies
toward an integrated approach to plant health (Baumann 2000;

Waller et al. 2005). Opportunities exist for co-innovation by both
the public and private sector to improve present IPM methods to
reduce even further the use of pesticides.

5.2.5. Agroforestry: Grow Perennials On-farm
for Food Security, Income and Ecosystem

Trees, shrubs and palms integrated into a farm can provide
year-round vegetative cover that reduces soil disturbance
and can often provide habitat for wild species, including
crop pollinators. Te practice of using perennial trees and
shrubs within a farm system is referred to as “agroforestry”.
Experiments in Zambia and Nigeria have shown that
agroforestry can improve rainfall use efciency (Sileshi et al.
2011). Trees as windbreaks can improve microenvironments for
crop production, reducing evapotranspiration and improving
soil water utilization. Diverse tree species can provide food,
proteins, vitamins, bioenergy, building materials, medicines
and raw materials for local enterprises, replacing sources
from forests and natural habitats (Dewees et al. 2011). One
promising avenue is developing perennial varieties of annual
cereal crops (De Haan et al. 2007; Glover and Reaganold

22 From Northeastern IPM Insights (http://www.northeastipm.org/about-us/

An agroforestry landscape in Costa Rica supports increased agricultural production, local livelihoods, and ecosystem services,
including climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Credit: EcoAgriculture Partners

Protect Natural Habitats

Incentives to protect natural forests and grasslands
include certifcation, payment for climate services,
securing land tenure rights and community fre

Restore Degraded Watersheds and Rangelands

Degradation costs livelihood assets and essential
watershed functions; restoration can be a win-win
strategy for addressing climate change, rural poverty,
and water scarcity.

Farm with Perennials

Perennial crops like grasses, palms, and
trees maintain and develop their roots
system, capture carbon, increase water
infltration, and reduce erosion.

Enrich Soil Carbon

Agricultural soils can be managed to
reduce emissions by minimising tillage,
reducing the use of nitrogen fertilizer,
preventing erosion, increasing organic
matter content, and adding biochar

Climate-Friendly Livestock Systems

Climate-friendly livestock production requires
rotational grazing systems, manure management,
methane capture, improved feeds as well as an
overall reduction in livestock numbers.

Strategies for Sustainable Agricultural Production Systems


“Leguminous trees”, which fx nitrogen in their roots, can
often increase crop productivity and economic returns at
low cost (Mafongoya et al. 2006). Farmers in Malawi who
intercropped with ‘fertilizer trees’ had four times greater
average yield, also producing at lower cost than when using
chemical fertilizer with the same amount of nitrogen (Pye-
Smith 2009). More research is needed to refne such systems
and assess their limits and sustainability, but perennials will
surely play larger roles in future agriculture.

5.2.6 Undertake Integrated Livestock Systems

Farmers have become specialized in either crop or livestock
production as the need for economies of scale and efciencies
have become a signifcant determinant of proftability. However,
climate and other factors are likely to make production units
that combine both crops and livestock more attractive in the
future. Improved pastoral systems (as described in Box 5.3)
and livestock mobility can ofer advantages in bufering shocks
of weather and other disasters.

More integrated production systems would reduce livestock
wastes and greenhouse gas emissions, and increase input and
resource efciency. Farmers could take advantage of synergies
among plants, trees and animals. Livestock would produce
manure for enhancing soil fertility and the non-marketable
biomass from crop production could be used to feed livestock.
Tis style of farming would also reduce the water pollution
and waste problems that arise from intensive rearing of cattle,
pigs, chickens and other animals (Box 5.4).

5.2.7 Improve and Maintain the Diversity of
Genetic Resources

As explained in Chapter 2, improved genetic resources and a
greater diversity of species and varieties of crops, grasses, trees,

soil microorganisms, and pollinators will be needed to sustain
productive agroecosystems and adapt to climate change and an
expected decline in the availability of water resources at some
locations. (Jarvis et al. 2007).

Biotechnology techniques can enhance conventional crop
and livestock breeding, Wang et al (2005) and Chi et al
(2010). Certain soil fungi can confer drought-resistance on
rice (Redman et al. 2011). Te advantages and disadvantages of

genetic modifcation are still open to debate but some believe
that it still make a contribution to sustainable agriculture. For
example, some believe that genetic modifcations can enhance
crops’ resistance to various environmental stresses, such as
drought, salinity and cold stress (Garg et al. 2002).

Plant breeding can also support more sustainable agriculture
by focusing on less-commonly-researched crops like millet
and sorghum, legumes, and food or fodder trees. Crop
varieties could be developed with traits that beneft ecosystem
management and conservation as well as yield, such as deeper
rooting and shade tolerance that increase farmers’ ability to
cope with climate pressures, or varieties that are high-yielding in
polycultures. Strong and resilient local seed systems will include
both local and improved varieties, aided by in-situ conservation.

Box 5.3. Holistic Planned Grazing

A strategy called ‘holistic management’ for livestock on semi-arid ranges,
developed frst in Zimbabwe, has demonstrated counter intuitively that
grasslands can become more productive (and desertifcation reversed)  when
heavily stocked with more animals per unit area. Te key is to stock
the animals for short periods using a planning process that addresses
social, environmental and economic factors. Careful range management
mimicking nature’s past evolution of grasslands accelerates pastures’ mineral
cycles, energy fows and community dynamics, as explained in Savory and
Butterfeld (1999).

Unretouched photo of a landscape in eastern central Australia. Te green land is under “holistic management”, while the surrounding brown land is
not. Both areas receive the same rainfall, with no irrigation. Credit: holistic Management international (www.holisticmanagement.org)

Box 5.4. Low-Confnement Integrated Hog Production Systems in the U.S.

In the U.S., owner-operated, low-confnement, integrated hog-producing systems are now competing efectively with large
factory farms. Meat products are produced sustainably, marketed through farmer cooperatives that sell under their own
brand names and certifed for humane animal treatment, with no antibiotic use and with chemicals used only for parasite
control. Te higher costs of production (17%) are no larger than the public subsidies going to large-scale corporate farms
for concentrated animal feeding operations (NRC 2010).

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